Friday, June 22, 2007

Flashback: Tugwell on FDR’s Sense of Humor and Tommy the Cork. .


[Fifty years of politics written for my kids and grandchildren].

A long dinner at the Hotel Bellevue Stratford in Philly following the Rexford Tugwell presentation at Wharton in 1975 included these observations.

Did Roosevelt have a sense of humor?

“Yes but he was both Puritan and patrician so his humor was generally very stuffy. You remember “my little dog Fala” line which he wrote himself in answer to a Republican charge that he made a Navy destroyer turn around in the ocean and go back to pick up his Scottie. He said that Fala had Scottish blood and was enraged with that attack by the Republicans. He drew laughs with it but it was not a knee-slapper. Or the story he told in Boston before a group of dissident Democrats who didn’t want him to run for a third term. Not particularly funny but illustrative. I was with him on that occasion. He told the crowd which was generally aloof due to the Irish having been worked up against the third term by Jim Farley. So Roosevelt told this story. Again: not funny particularly but illustrative.

“He said he had an uncle Caleb who lived in upstate New York and who was losing his hearing. He went to the doctor who sent him to a fancy clinic in Boston. The specialists spent a day peering into his ears and his medical history and one asked him: `Do you do any drinking, Caleb?’

He said, `drinking—what kind do you mean?’ The specialist said, `you know what I mean—alcohol. Do you drink a lot of whiskey?’ Caleb said he did `a mite.’ The specialist said, `well, I think it’s more than a mite. Caleb our scientists have just concluded a study which says that in rare cases, consumption of alcoholic beverages can destroy hearing. And it turns out that you happen to be one of those rare cases. So I can tell you this. If you want to save what’s left of your hearing, you have to stop drinking immediately. What is your answer to that?’

“Roosevelt said Caleb thought for a minute and said, `I like what I’ve been drinking so much more than what I’ve been hearing, that I’m goin’ to keep on gettin’ deef!”

“The audience roared because they knew what was coming next. And it came. Then he tied into Boston by asking, “What have I been hearing about Boston? Is Boston telling me to leave this job now when we are not yet finished restoring employment and defending the Forgotten Man who thanks to the Republicans has been left out in the cold?” That was a mild joke with a political thrust.”

You’re right, it’s got a political thrust but is not funny. Did he enjoy let us say, scatological humor?

“A sure way to disgust him is to tell scatological humor. But I did only once and it happened to go over quite well. ”

What was it?

“I’ll give you the context. There was an obnoxious far-right congressman named Stephen A. Day.”

He was from Illinois—Congressman Stephen A. Day, one of Colonel McCormick’s choicest conservatives.

“Not surprising. Anyhow on a slow day in the House—it was over the furor concerning the Supreme Court packing…which I thought was a bad idea by the way (it was largely Tommy the Cork’s doing)…Day got some headlines I suppose tailored for the Chicago Tribune by introducing an impeachment for Roosevelt. It bothered the president when he heard it because it had not been a particularly good day anyhow. I was with him and he growled about it. I told him that this pipsqueak congressman whom no one particularly knew reminded me of a farm story that circulated through upstate New York rural areas when I was a boy…about the camel who had decided to deflower the Sphinx. Well, Roosevelt was a patrician so reference to what you call scatology was not particularly his line—but I just left it like that…the camel who had decided to deflower the Sphinx. He put down his pen, took off his pinch nez glasses and asked with a guffaw, `what happened?’

“I said it was put down in poetry form and I recited it to him—a bit of doggerel you know. It started with the camel lusting after the Sphinx and seeking to deflower her. Then the rhyme goes this way: `Now the Sphinx’s posterior orifice/ Is closed by the sands of the Nile/ Which explains the hump on the camel/ And the Sphinx’s inscrutable smile.” He roared with laughter and delight. Later when I went back to the Ag Department the phone rang. It was him without a secretary as intermediary and he asked me to recite it to him as he wrote it down. I never heard whether or not he used it. But somewhere it resonated.”

You said Tommy the Cork was responsible for the court packing scheme. That’s Thomas G. Corcoran, the Rhode Island lawyer who became one of FDR’s political go-fers.

“He was much more than that. I understand you’re a lobbyist for Quaker Oats. Tommy would be one to study since he became and may still be by all odds the most influential lobbyist in Washington. But don’t copy his principles because he has none—none which I could discern at any rate. I don’t know how good a Catholic you are but you shouldn’t imitate Tommy’s Catholicism at any rate/”

How very interesting. How did his religion come into play?

“ He was a number of years young than I, born in Rhode Island, an Irish Catholic who went to Brown and then Harvard Law where he came under the influence of Felix Frankfurter. Frankfurter once told me that Corcoran was fighting the burden of inferiority that his Irish Catholicism imposed on him.”

Wait a minute. You’re talking to a guy who’s half Irish and all Catholic. What did that remark mean?

“Your church had a reputation in some so-called elevated circles of being autocratic and anti-free inquiry. This was before what you call the reforms of the Church came in with your Pope John. You may not care to hear it but there were Catholic prelates who believed university education vitiated Catholicism—casting skepticism about. Well, of course, a truly educated man is a skeptic as he searches for the truth. Tommy came from the kind of Irish upbringing that resented this—although Tommy was an excellent legal student with Frankfurter and Frankfurter got him a job as clerk to Oliver Wendell Holmes. If that wouldn’t make you a skeptic—clerking for Holmes—nothing would. Tommy ended up a strong advocate for domestic New Deal measures but continued as a steadfast anti-Communist which was consonant with his Church. Nothing wrong with that, of course.”

And then what happened to him?

’FDR asked Frankfurter to help him find bright young lawyers to review the nation’s securities laws. Felix recommended Tommy and Ben Cohen. They worked in the White House on what became the Securities and Exchange Commission. I looked in on their work but had my own to do in agriculture. But Tommy became far more than a legal draftsman. He put himself in charge of getting the Public Utilities Holding Company act passed. Then Senator Owen Brewster of Maine was opposed so Tommy went to him and put it flat out in tough Irish Democratic talk: `You vote for this legislation or I’ll see, from my White House perch, that construction on the Passamaquoddy dam in your district is halted.’ The Senate held a hearing and we all held our breath but the investigation, run by Hugo Black, cleared Corcoran. Tommy was unafraid and unrepentant, telling us `storms make the sailor if he can survive them.’ The president who enjoyed a good fight clapped Tommy on the back but Morganthau always held he was a crook. But—why do you get me started? There’s much more to the story.”

Such as?

“Roosevelt was so impressed with Tommy that he made him his personal emissary to the Hill—the very first, so far as I know, White House staffer who had as his portfolio the right to call all the shots to see that legislation FDR favored was passed. Louis Howe was on to him and had Roosevelt’s full-time ear, but then Howe died and Tommy reigned supreme from the standpoint of political tactics used on the Hill. One of the most important things Tommy did was intervene against Jim Farley who wanted to make New York congressman John O’Connor get the job of Speaker now that Bankhead had died. It was poisonous to go against Farley and FDR rather sat back and enjoyed it. Tommy’s candidate was Sam Rayburn so you know how that came out. That started Tommy having influence not just with Rayburn but Texas oil.

“Well you know the rest of the story as an FDR student. The Supreme Court under Charles Evans Hughes ruled unconstitutional some of the president’s key legislation including the NRA and my pet…one I worked on…the Agricultural Adjustment Act. I can’t say this for sure but I know Tommy either wrote FDR’s speech or contributed heavily to it—the speech that said that six of the nine justices were over age seventy. Roosevelt said he was going to ask Congress to pass a law enabling the president to expand the Supreme Court by adding one new judge up to a maximum of six for every current judge over seventy. Well I saw that in the newspapers I knew two things—it was Tommy’s work and it would fail to win public support.”

Did Tommy get the job of ramming the legislation through Congress?

“He did and Izzie Stone [I. F. Stone] became his consort, writing speeches for Congressmen and Senators to deliver. Tommy was counting on the continued support of Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, on Senate Judiciary but Wheeler became crazed…I mean this almost literally…and turned against Roosevelt like on a dime, opposing the measure and even insisting that FDR caused the assassination of Huey Long! The measure failed to win passage as seemingly everybody was against it. But then something happened to increase Tommy’s influence. One by one some conservative Supreme Court members began to switch, starting with Owen Roberts who said he changed his mind on minimum wage legislation. Tommy’s campaign was credited by some in the White House as having worked despite the bill’s failure. It was known as the `Switch in time that saved nine!’ Then Willis Van Devanter, a conservative Republican justice, decided to resign. Tommy convinced Roosevelt that his replacement should be Hugo Black, the Senator from Alabama who became a great civil libertarian. Roosevelt named him and was pleased.”

He sounds like a genius.

“He was but a perverted one. He took probably far more credit than he deserved—credit for finding Hugo Black, for naming Felix Frankfurter although there he probably did, for Frank Murphy and Bill Douglas who had been head of the SEC. Then when there was a hubbub over Hugo Black having been a Ku Klux Klan member, Tommy—and I am sure he did this—orchestrated Black’s act of contrition to the country and got him confirmed.”

What happened to end Tommy’s effectiveness?

“Events. Tommy was a domestic liberal but as an Irish Catholic a foreign policy conservative. That’s where I got off the boat because I was somewhat of a hot property myself and I went to Puerto Rico. Initially the Catholics, working through Tommy in the White House, got FDR to slap a arms embargo on Spain—on both sides, the Franco side and the republican side. Liberals wanted the embargo lifted so that arms could go to those opposing Franco. Tommy singlehandedly—and I mean this—blocked the move to end the embargo, working through the Catholic church. I fault Tommy greatly for this because he knew that Hitler and Mussolini would be supporting Franco and he blocked our supporting the anti-fascist side. That got the president perturbed with Tommy because his liberal instincts and that of Mrs. Roosevelt wanted to support the anti-fascists. That was the beginning of the end of Tommy the Cork.

“There, damnit, I have spent far too much time educating you, although I appreciate the Wharton foundation’s honorarium! I am going to bed and am going to fly back to Santa Barbara tomorrow. If you wish you might use your lobbyist’s credentials to seek out Tommy the Cork. Even now as old as he is, he is the most powerful lobbyist in Washington. I cannot help you further. Goodnight.”

I didn’t know how or if ever I would meet the famous Tommy the Cork—although he had been at Quaker’s premiere of a Lincoln documentary that was shown at Ford’s Theatre. Moreover as a white-haired widower, he was the escort of an attractive Chinese lady, the former Chen Xiangmes who as a reporter for the Chinese Central news agency under Chiang kai Shek had met and married a man many years her senior—Major General Claire Channault, who formed the “Flying Tigers” to help China repel the Japanese. I certainly couldn’t go up to Tommy the Cork then and so I discarded the idea.

A few years after the Tugwell experience, while in Washington on Quaker errands, I dropped by the office of my old boss, former Congressman Walter H. Judd of Minnesota…a former Congregationalist medical missionary to China and exponent of a sometime Free China… with whom I had stayed in touch and who was active in Far Eastern affairs with particular respect to Taiwan. He said, “Look here, if you’re not doing anything tonight why not go with Mrs. Judd and me to Anna Channault’s house to welcome some dignitaries from Taiwan?”

I said: I’d be delighted. Do you suppose Tommy the Cork will be there?

“Do I suppose? He is always with her. A delightful couple although Tommy is a lot older than she—but that’s not my business or yours. But Tommy is heart and soul a Catholic of the old school and fervent anti-Communist, as, young man, I hope you have continued to be.”

Later that evening we went to her house. Before we entered the dining room for dinner, she had a waiter pour wine for everybody. Then with the soft candle-light enhancing her spectacularly tiny form, dancing on the blue colors of her gorgeous Chinese kimono and highlighting her raven hair and slight olive coloring, she raised her glass and beckoned us to do the same.

We waited for her to pronounce the toast.

“To Gordon Liddy,” she said. “In prison three years so far and in solitary confinement. May he continue to be loyal to Richard Nixon, spill no secrets and be fortified by this toast and our prayers.”

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the memory! I met Mrs. Chennault when I was researching my history of the Flying Tigers, and some time afterward it dawned on me that the K Street office where she ran her consulting (lobbying?) business had the very same street address as Mr. Corcoran's.

    It was his younger brother David who actually ran the front office, China Defense Supplies, that funneled money and materiel to the Flying Tigers--and it was he who named it. Or so the story was told to me by his widow, Joan Corcoran.

    It's quite a story, that of Chennault and the American Volunteer Group. More at

    Blue skies! -- Dan Ford